A 20-foot-long piece of wreckage from the Space Shuttle Challenger, which was destroyed soon after launch in 1986, was discovered by explorers slogging through the Atlantic Ocean in quest of lost WWII treasures.
Off the coast of Florida, while shooting “The Bermuda Triangle: Into Cursed Waters,” the History Channel and NASA made the discovery of the Challenger module on Thursday. This month will see the series’ debut on the History Channel.
On January 28, 1986, shortly after liftoff, the Challenger space shuttle disintegrated, killing all seven people on board. Among them was a teacher who had been training to become the first civilian in space. Students around the United States saw the explosion unfold live on television that morning.
To “fully commemorate the memory of Challenger’s dead astronauts and the families who loved them,” NASA is “now reviewing what extra measures it may take” regarding the relic, according to a press statement.
Mike Barnette, the leader of the dive team that discovered the shuttle fragment, recalls seeing the disaster unfold on TV in his high school classroom. He said it was “sobering” to see a piece of the spaceship; it was the first piece of debris recovered since the shuttle’s wreckage washed up on beach in 1996.
Barnette, speaking to CNN by phone on Thursday, recalled the day of the Challenger explosion, saying, “I can practically smell the scents of that day.” To paraphrase, “It was etched indelibly into my mind.”
In March, Barnette and his team of investigators set out for the Bermuda Triangle, an area of the northern Atlantic Ocean said to be the scene of several shipwrecks and aircraft disasters. The group also targeted a region beyond the triangle, located off the Space Coast of Florida, from where the space agency has launched rockets for decades.
According to the History Channel, the dive crew was initially hunting for a missing rescue aircraft from World War II that was last seen in December 1945. However, their attention was piqued by a more recent device partly concealed by sand on the bottom.
Barnette said the water was as dark as Guinness beer on the first dive due to a storm. “Visibility was quite poor,” he lamented.
In May, the divers went out for a second time and got some good film of the wreckage. Barnette’s close friend and former NASA astronaut Bruce Melnick was the first to suspect the find may be debris from the Challenger explosion when they showed him the proof.
The explorers knew they had found a significant portion of the Challenger’s underbelly when they came across the ship’s signature square tiles. When the shuttle descended back into Earth’s atmosphere from orbit, it was covered with millions of silicon tiles to keep the heat out.
NASA was given the team’s findings in August, and after examining diving video, the space agency verified the debris’s origins in a press statement issued in September.
Seven people, including NASA astronauts Francis “Dick” Scobee, Michael Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, and Gregory Jarvis, and a New Hampshire schoolteacher named Christa McAuliffe who was set to become the first citizen space shuttle passenger as part of a new NASA program, were scheduled to fly aboard the final Challenger mission.
The Challenger detonated only 73 seconds into its flight from Florida. All on board perished. Later analysis by NASA determined that one of Challenger’s solid rocket boosters had lost its seal due to exposure to cold temperatures while the shuttle was waiting on the launchpad. The explosion was triggered by a buildup of extremely explosive gases that were allowed to escape.
It has been over 37 years since the Challenger disaster, yet the memories of those seven courageous explorers will never fade from the American consciousness. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson stated in a statement, “January 28, 1986, still seems like yesterday for millions across the world, myself included.
This new information provides us with a chance to stop and remember the seven pioneers we lost and the impact that their sacrifice had on our community. “Safety is and always will be NASA’s first and foremost concern, and this is particularly true as our missions expand their horizons to study more of the universe than ever before.”
The History Channel will debut the first episode of its six-part series “The Bermuda Triangle: Into Cursed Waters” on November 22 at 10 p.m. Eastern Time.